Bill Burr: ‘I’m a functioning psycho’

By | August 25, 2008 at 3:42 am | One comment | Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Bill BurrWith the release of an album, DVD and the premiere of his one-hour Comedy Central special, Why Do I Do This? it’s a busy month for one Boston-bred comedian– especially for a self-professed ‘pyscho.’ Welcome to the honest — if not, slightly frightening — mind of Bill Burr.

Over the past five years, few comedians have been more exciting to watch grow as an artist as Bill Burr. Through his work on Chappelle’s Show, his Comedy Central Presents special, HBO One-Night Stand, stellar debut album Emotionally Unavailable, and most importantly, his road work headlining the country’s better comedy venues, the Boston native has become one of the most highly-respected and sought after comedians.

But it’s only getting better for Burr. His new album Why Do I Do This? – deeper, darker and even funnier than his first – was released Aug 5. An hour-long Comedy Central special version of the album premieres Aug. 31 at 11 pm EST while the DVD will be in stores come Sept. 16. That’s a powerful triple shot for the 40-year-old comic.

Punchline Magazine recently chatted with Burr about the new special, why therapy doesn’t work for him, what it’s like living as a “functioning psycho” and much more.

A lot of your new material seems to deal with “the imp of the perverse,” or the notion that at any given time there’s a devil in your ear urging you do or say exactly the opposite of what’s socially acceptable.
Yeah, that was more sort of the ending chunk I was doing— that whole fucked up thought things. I think I was always conscious of that voice. Just like when you’re younger and you sit there with a friend and say, ‘Hey, you know what would be funny? Blah Blah Blah.’ You think it’s just kind of an immaturity, but it never stops. I think you just ignore it when you become an adult or something like that, but as a comedian, you notice it more often. I think a lot of it comes out of frustration.

Do you think the audience has to like a comedian to find them funny?
Oh absolutely. If a crowd hates you, you’re done.

But you have a lot of material where you seem to risk that. You talk about thinking, saying or doing horrible things. And you seem to get away with it.
I don’t feel like I’m getting away with anything because I don’t mean anything maliciously. And I call myself out on not being the most well-read person a bunch of times. One of the worst onstage personas is the all-knowing being. I could name, maybe five senators in this country, never mind the ones in my own state, you know what I mean? I just try to say what I think is funny, and what I think is right, knowing full well that I have access to about 2 percent of the information I need to make a truly informed decision.

There’s been some buzz about you having a show where you talk about the issues, but with the twist that all of your opinions are really uninformed. So, you don’t see yourself going the Dennis Miller route, with your comedy evolving into a straight-faced political talk format?
No, no, no. I could never hang with Dennis Miller or Bill Maher. They’re just really smart, really informed people, and I’m not. I’m informed in like, just weird random shit. Certain parts of history, I can kind of hang in the conversation. But like, on Bill Maher, that guy is just so smart and so with it. I couldn’t do that. I mean, I could go on the show and talk about some of what I think.

But you’re more about being funny then making a point.
This is what it is: I definitely want to get my point across but I have more of a regular guy approach; I can’t explain it. I kind of go more with my gut. You know, when it comes to that stuff, 80 percent of it is I don’t like reading, and I’m lazy when it comes to that shit. And like, Dennis Miller— he does more talk stuff on his TV shows now. But you gotta give it up: he was a beast back in the day.

You talk in your material and on your web site about having moved to LA from New York. Where do you weigh in on the East Coast vs. West Coast question?
Yeah I moved out here. The opportunities out here are ridiculous as compared to New York, I can tell you that. But you have to be at a certain level where you can get to those opportunities. ‘Cause I lived out here 10 years ago and I was fuckin’ miserable. I wanted to develop more as a comedian and New York is the place to do that. And me going to New York and developing as a comedian is what allowed me to come out here. Of course as soon as I moved out here, there was a writers strike.

So New York is the place to develop artistically, and L.A. is the place to advance your career once you get some cred.?
For me that’s how it was. There’s other people who might have just the opposite experience. But yeah, just so much of the business is based out here; I can go for meetings and do auditions on short notice without having to get on a plane. The only thing that has sucked has been when it comes to doing shows because most of the comedy clubs are East of the Mississippi.

In the special, you mention going to therapy, but you can’t take advantage of it because you keep having the urge to make jokes about the shrink’s advice and your own problems. Do you ever feel like being a comedian, and always having to find the humor in everything interferes with your ability to be a normal person?
No. Humor is a defense mechanism. That’s what people don’t understand, like when people get offended, when a tragedy happens, and comedians make jokes about it, it’s a form of coping with it. I’ll start to get a bad feeling, and to deal with that tension I’ll make a joke about it.

Like songwriters who only write when they’re depressed.
Yeah, but I don’t create from there. That’s a formula, like, ‘If I’m happy I won’t be able to feed myself.’ I don’t want to have to deal with that. But yeah, with therapy I was just kinda frustrated with it. You know, it can be a frustrating thing, trying to figure out why you’re so fucked up.

Do you consider yourself a well-adjusted guy, or do you have demons?
Well, both. I’m a pretty well adjusted guy, but like I said in the special, I’m a functioning psycho. I mean I don’t rob liquor stores or anything like that. But you know. Everyone’s a little fucked up I guess.

There’s a great bit in the new special where you make fun of a movie about racism in swimming. Do you ever seek out stupid things just to get material?
No, because I have very little patience. I just saw the trailer for that movie. But it was like, ‘We’re down to swimming?!’ I get it, we’re evil, enough! I was just talking to somebody about that joke. The thing is, everybody in those movies is either 100 percent a good guy or 100 percent a bad guy, and that’s just not how people are in the world.

There are definitely bad people. But you know how those fuckin’ movies are. It stops being about making a good movie and starts being about making something they can sell. Like, the studio guy going, ‘Okay, that’s good, but could you make the white guy even more mad when the black people try to get in the pool?’

You have a good thing going in your shows where you can go from talking about really dark, deeply personal things, to just making fun of the superficial.
I’ve always liked the comics who could talk about whatever they wanted to. And you basically establish the ability to do that by doing that. Some people seem to approach it as more of a business, like, ‘I do jokes about bathrobes.’ And then he comes to town and everybody’s like, ‘Hey! It’s the bathrobe guy!’ I’d kill myself if I were in those shoes. And, you know I’d love to sell the tickets that the bathrobe guy is selling. But I like the idea of talking about whatever I want to talk about.

You were responsible for a famous incident in Philly – at the Opie and Anthony Traveling Virus tour two years ago – where the crowd was heckling you so you turned your whole set into an attack on them and their city (see video below) and by the end of it, the crowd respected you. What’s your advice for dealing with hecklers?
Well, you know, the great thing about the thing in Philly was that it wasn’t at all a planned thing. It just happened. It was just the right crowd meeting the right defensive psycho comedian. But as far as just handing the people in the crowd, I’ve always been against using the kind of standard stock lines, like ‘Hey, I don’t go where you work and knock the dicks out of your mouth!’ I learned a lot from just watching the other guys who were great at dealing with the crowd.

I remember watching Greg Fitzsimmons; he was already in New York when I started, but he would come to Boston and I would open for him. He was just great with the crowd. And he’d give me advice on dealing with the crowd. He’d say just ask them questions and eventually they’ll say something stupid. But just being really in the moment helps. Instead of trying to cover, say how you feel when they start interrupting you. It comes from being comfortable onstage, like when you get as comfortable onstage as you are off.

You know, when you’re sitting in traffic and someone yells at you, you don’t have stock lines. You just go off on them. And a lot of times if someone’s walking down the street watching you yell at someone they’ll start laughing. And a lot of times what you’re saying isn’t even funny, it’s just funny that you’re doing it. That’s just the zone you try to get in. Like, I wasn’t trying to be funny when I was saying that shit, I meant everything I said. I wasn’t having fun. I was pissed; I had a headache at the end of it. I got off stage and was nervous that Opie and Anthony would be mad that I wasn’t doing my job.

I would just say when you’re getting heckled, just really go with what you’re thinking, because even if it isn’t funny, it’s going to be something hateful. If you just really tapped into how sad that person was making you, you could turn it into something. There’s no formula for it. I would just go with what the hell you’re thinking.

Is the Bill Burr we see onstage really you or a character?
It’s just an amped-up version of me. It’s me in a bar with a good friend. That’s who I am onstage. You know, you don’t walk around your apartment like that. You don’t walk into church and say, ‘Ya know what fuckin’ pisses me off?’ I chill out when I’m not onstage.

But you know, if someone does piss me off, I do become that guy that’s onstage. If someone’s being a dick to me in a customer service kind of way, that adrenaline does get going like it does onstage. But you know, I don’t walk around my apartment with a mic stand.

Bill’s new special, Why Do I Do This? premieres Aug. 31 at 11 pm EST on Comedy Central. The album version is out now and the DVD version of the special is out Sept. 16. For more info, check out BillBurr.com.

About the Author

Brendan McLaughlin

Brendan is a comedian and writer based in Brooklyn, NY.